Few quarterbacks are capable enough to start as true freshmen. Even fewer quarterbacks go from starter to scout team in less than a calendar year. But that’s exactly what happened to Ryan Willis.
Willis’ experience at Kansas has value, even though the experience was mostly negative. Willis struggled in his 16 games played for the Jayhawks, throwing 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. But now that he’s at Virginia Tech, Willis has a second chance. If you were able to watch Virginia Tech’s Spring Game on Saturday, it would seem like Willis is closing in on that starting role.
Virginia Tech’s offense scored four second-half touchdowns in Saturday’s glorified scrimmage, and Willis was on the field for three of them. He threw two touchdowns himself, one to Phil Patterson on a deep crossing route and another to Sean Savoy on a go-ball. He finished the day 10-of-15 for 262 yards and the two scores, but he also finished Saturday with a better chance of winning Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback competition.
Saturday was Willis’ first game-like competition since 2016, so it’s safe to say he was ready to get going.
“Definitely. It was good to get in front of the Hokie fans,” Willis said. “I played in [the Spring Game] last spring. Didn’t do much because I was ineligible, but I mean it feels good to be back on the field, out there with my friends, just playing ball, having fun.”
Head coach Justin Fuente echoed Willis’ sentiments.
“Yeah, I think he was excited to get out there,” Fuente said. “It’s really tough on a kid, the redshirt year is difficult. It’s even harder when it’s in the middle of your career and when you’ve had a chance to play, and then you’ve got to sit back and know you’ve got no chance of playing. That’s pretty tough.
“I think he handled it pretty well, he was productive. So yeah, there’s no question he was excited to be back out there. He’s more athletic than I think maybe even we thought, just watching him run around and move in the offseason. Has some talent throwing the football, made some strides, still has a long way to go, in terms of our comfort level with him operating day in and day out.”
Of course, Willis isn’t going to be handed the job. He’ll have to earn it by passing incumbent starter Josh Jackson, who threw for 20 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 2017. Jackson’s numbers were rather pedestrian on Saturday, as he completed 6-of-12 attempts for 64 yards, and had an interception that wasn’t really his fault.
Even though Jackson looked like the backup on Saturday, Fuente feels confident about his growth this spring.
“I think he’s taken another step, in terms of understanding what we’re trying to accomplish,” Fuente said of Jackson. “He’s as bright a guy as I’ve coached. He really has a high aptitude. So I think he’s taken a step forward. I think there’s still room for him to be pushed. He still needs to fall in love more with the process. He needs to fall more in love with preparing. He does a good job of that, but I think there’s another level of detail that he can reach in his preparation. But I’ve been really pleased with him.”
“I think I made a lot of progress this spring, just working on my footwork and knowing the offense in and out,” Jackson said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better than that.”
Jackson and Willis took a majority of the reps on Saturday, with redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker taking all of his reps with the backups. Hooker wasn’t able to find a rhythm, completing just one pass for 42 yards on the last play of the game. Hooker probably should have had a touchdown earlier on, but Kaleb Smith dropped the pass.
Even though Hooker seems to be the clear No. 3 on the depth chart now, Fuente cautioned on Saturday that the division of reps on Saturday means very little.
“I don’t know that I would read anything into that,” Fuente said. “I don’t know what they are, if that helps you. But I don’t know how many reps either of them took. But we’ll sit down at the end of spring and evaluate everybody’s performance and move forward.
“No jobs are taken. We’re going to play the best people and all our guys know that. The best guys are going to get out there and play.”
But still, it seems like a two-horse race for the starting role at quarterback. Josh Jackson has experience in the system and played well as a redshirt freshman in 2017, while Ryan Willis is banking on his improvement since his tenure at Kansas.
“We kind of push each other,” Willis said. “We’re battling. We want to be the best we can be. We push each other intellectually, we push each other physically, just competitive people who want to be the best and whoever’s number is called, we’re both going to be ready.”